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Before I say anything about Canada, about the reasonable food at Tim Hortons and crystalline waters of Lake Superior, about loonies and toonies; before I celebrate vast bogs and infinite lakes, Baird’s Sparrows and the Wawa Goose; before you get to see the slide show below, and even before I describe my $65 encounter with the Canadian health-care system – before any of that I have to talk about mosquitoes.
Because I study dragonflies, which eat mosquitoes for breakfast, I can’t tell you a whole lot more about mosquitoes than you probably already know. But based on my constant cohabitation with mosquitoes for the past two weeks, from Ontario to Saskatchewan, I can tell you about their attack strategies. And I do mean constant cohabitation: even when I gambled on camping in the parking-lot-desert of the Northern Lights Casino in Prince Albert, SK, even then I camped with mosquitoes.
Lawn mosquitoes are the worst. Yeah, mosquitoes living on or near mowed grass, where you wouldn’t expect to find as many as in, say, a spruce bog. Lawn mosquitoes are on you fast (the little vampires go first for the neck) and pierce your arteries milliseconds after landing. On mowed grass in the village of Flamingo, in Everglades National Park at the southern tip of Florida, I once stepped from the sunshine into the shade of a palm only to be seized upon by a squadron of lawn mosquitoes like something out of Star Wars. They drove me back into the dry light. The worst lawn mosquitoes I encountered on this trip were at the Pine Tree Campground & Trailer Park in Prawda, Manitoba (Adventure Mini-Golf nearby), a cozy respite with a handsome guy in a dirty apron at the grill/office. Only after I left with welts the next morning did I read on my receipt: “NO REFUNDS BECAUSE OF BAD WEATHER OR MOSQUITOES.” By the way, this campground’s bathroom was sparkling and its shower (no coins necessary) really blasted the hot water. Heaven.
From July 5 to 20, I lived every night in my tent or in the back of my pickup. I spent a lot of time in or near humid wetlands and ponds. Here I expect mosquitoes, and assume my place on the food chain. But when I reached the bogs of the Canadian Shield, and paddled as far north as I’ve ever been on the planet (where that red arrow is pointing on the map there to the right), the mosquitoes were actually tolerable. They must read the DEET labels. I do love DEET. It allows me to work and play in comfort in some wonderfully buggy places. In fact, I’d like DEET genetically engineered into my genome.
Anyway, those bog mosquitoes, flying with black flies and deer flies, are no match for lawn mosquitoes. You can see and hear some of them in this video I shot in a bog I bushwhacked to up in Saskatchewan.
So after a fine time up there in the bogs, in the warm embrace of black spruce and tamarack, I zoomed south toward some of the coolest mixed prairie I’ve been anywhere: Grasslands National Park. (Other tempting destinations at the time were Medicine Hat or Moose Jaw, which will have to wait for some other trip, maybe to watch hockey and curling instead of chasing butterflies and dragonflies.) Here in these grasslands, with Common Nighthawks zigzagging overhead, Burrowing Owls posed a short walk from my campsite, and bison grazing in the distance – here I encountered not lawn mosquitoes but prairie mosquitos in abundance I’ve not experienced since doing bird survey work in the Adirondacks more than a decade ago. Breathing meant inhaling mosquitoes. They were small and quick … and wimpy. More buzz than bite, actually. I dragged a cloud into my tent, and spent 10 minutes exterminating the invaders before drifting off in the killing field. How the French-Canadian Voyageurs did it without mosquito netting I’ll never know; these guys, heroes of mine as a kid, were the hardest-ass hardasses ever to bushwhack, paddle, and portage Canada.
Birding the prairie before dawn the next morning was like a living dream (among clouds of mosquitoes). Chestnut-collared Longspur (that’s Greg Lasley‘s photo above), well, I nearly wet my pants. There, how’s that for bailing out on writing? For now, Greg’s image shall speak louder than my words. (Besides, I gotta go soon.)
In and around this park I encountered Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit, more Burrowing Owls, perched Common Nighthawks and a life bird: Baird’s Sparrow, my last North American sparrow. I nearly missed him, having watched many other sparrows in the park that morning. Only on my way out, already resigned to accepting and enjoying what flies my way, even if Baird’s Sparrow did not, I barely caught off in the distance a portion of that forced song – a few short, high, insect-like notes with a forced, high, buzzy trailing ending. I might have missed it had I decided to shelter myself from the mosquitoes in the truck. In the grasslands, it pays to drive slowly with open windows.
From the grasslands, on July 20, I went south into Montana. And on my first night back in the US, off somewhere in the Gallatin National Forest near Livingston, MT, which rivals Montpelier for a livable city, came the polite awakening: in the cool, dry air – no mosquitoes. None. Only the soft flutter of moths around my headlamp. It’s hard to describe going outside and not bracing for mosquitoes. It’s a force of its own defined by comfort and pleasure. So in the open, quiet air I slept, and slept, and smiled as I slept.
On July 23, an even more polite awakening: Ruth walking toward me at the Bozeman airport. We’re now off for a week of backpacking. Regular readers of this blog might find odd the roughness of prose in this post; it’s unedited, not something I normally present. It’s even incomplete. So consider this the End of Part I. I’ll tell more of Canada in Part II once Ruth and I are out of the mountains. In the meantime, below I offer you a slide show of random images from Canada, a land that I love.